As we prepare to celebrate President’s Day and George Washington’s Birthday, it’s tempting to think of our first president as an icon who was beloved by the American people at all times. As the victorious general in the American Revolution and the first president, much of the public admired Washington. Like all presidents who came after him, however, even George Washington could not escape criticism in the press.
In the late eighteenth century, newspapers didn’t claim to stick to the facts or be objective. One particular paper, the National Gazette, criticized President Washington throughout his presidency. Every time Washington threw a birthday party for himself, the Gazette complained about it. After his sixty-first birthday, the Gazette stated, “who will deny, that the celebrating of birth days is not a striking feature of royalty? We hear of no such thing during the republic of Rome.” Perhaps the Gazette failed to realize that most people in ancient Rome did not live to be sixty-one. Anyway, the paper was determined to label Washington as wishing to act as a king—an idea that horrified revolutionaries who had just escaped the rule of the King of England.
Another paper, the Aurora, published rumors about Washington’s disloyalty to America when he served as General of the Army. The letters portrayed him as a “lukewarm patriot”, which was untrue. Even when the army suffered from bad weather or defeat in battle, Washington was determined to defeat the British. The paper did not bother to check the source of the letters as might be expected today. Instead the paper’s owner printed what he liked, and he liked to criticize Washington.
The usually mild-mannered Washington lost his temper with these attacks on his character. According to Thomas Jefferson, he once swore at an article in the Aurora, something he rarely did in front of others. Even before becoming president, Washington had never been a fan of the press. As a general he complained that reporters hurt the American cause by revealing too much information. As president, he publicly pretended not care what the press said, though in letters to friends he wrote that he was tired of being attacked “by a set of infamous scribblers.” Personal attacks by his countrymen hurt him in a way that no enemy ever had.
Some historians claim that Washington retired from the presidency after two terms to show the press that he did not want to become king, though other reasons like ill health also played a role. Still, by retiring to his plantation, Washington could finally silence critics who wanted to portray him as a man obsessed with power. Now the press would have to turn its wrath on another president.